Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Concerns and Perceptions of Monarchy: John Clare's the Raree Show'

Academic journal article John Clare Society Journal

Concerns and Perceptions of Monarchy: John Clare's the Raree Show'

Article excerpt

John Clare's literary life spanned the reigns of four monarchs: King George ??, his two sons George IV and William IV and their niece, Queen Victoria. His allegiance to the concept of monarchy was unequivocal: he wrote that 'common sense will teach you that a king is better than no king (...) the nobility are the props of a nation'.1 As a poet, Clare was acquainted with certain members of the aristocracy through their patronage. However, he glimpsed royalty only once, during Queen Victoria's progress through Northampton, when as a quizzical bystander he bore witness to the event in 'The Raree Show'.2 Most editors and biographers have disregarded or overlooked 'The Raree Show'. In their biography, the Tibbies were indifferent to the poem, omitting it from their two-volume collected edition: 'Clare was given an excellent place from which to view the procession: but 'The Raree Show', some easy doggerel, was all that the occasion produced from him.'3 Except for the Oxford edition of Later Poems, the poem has not been included in any published anthology, selection or collected works, apart from the early appearance of one or two illustrative excerpts quoted in Anne Elizabeth Baker's Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases [1854]. One key aim of this essay will be a critical reevaluation of 'The Raree Show'.

In his poetry, Clare expressed his concerns and perceptions of monarchy on a wide range of subjects and issues: from the plight of the poor, to the pomp and circumstance of royal pageantry; from the foibles of royal indiscretion, to the charades of political farce. Most of Clare's poems alluding to royalty cover the waning of the Regency era, where the narrative oscillates between optimism and disillusion. After reviewing one or two examples illustrating Clare's general disquiet for these times, I will seek to contextualise and reappraise two contrasting poems featuring Queen Victoria: 'Don Juan A Poem' and 'The Raree Show'.

'What common people think of Kings'

As Prince Regent, George IV had served as monarch during the last nine years of his father's blindness and insanity. On the death of the king, Southey, the Poet Laureate of the day, obliged, as John Lucas puts it, with 'his fatuous elegy for George III, 'A Vision of Judgment': ['so deeply the care of his country / Lay in that royal soul repos'd']. Like Wordsworth, Southey had retreated from the flaming republicanism of his youth'.4 Avowed, 'republican poets' were less complimentary than Southey in their appraisal of the King's legacy; Shelley, pouring scorn on the King and his sons: 'An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king / -Princes, the dregs of their dull race'; Byron, displaying a little more restraint, before decrying the fate of oppressed millions: 'I grant him all the kindest can accord; / And this was well for him but not for those / Millions who found him what oppression chose'.5 Though concerned for the fate of his country on the death of the king, it is doubtful whether Clare would have shared Shelly's acrimonious feelings towards George III. Indeed, Clare's affection for 'Mad King George' (also known as the 'Farmer King' in accordance with his penchant for agricultural pursuits) was expressed by proxy, to his patron Lord Radstock. In reference to his support for George IV during the Queen Caroline affair, Clare declared to Radstock: 'if the King of England was a madman I should love him as a brother of the soil' (my italics).6

Shortly after the publication of Poems Descriptive of Rural life and Scenery, Clare wrote his own take on the state of the nation on the death of George III. 'England' was enclosed in a letter to his publisher, John Taylor, concluding 'what think you by 'England' I think I shall stand a chance of the Laureat Vacancy next time it turns out!!!'7 Opening with a quote from Cowper, 'England with all thy faults I love the[e] still', Clare qualifies his love of king and country with concerns for the nature of English 'freedom': 'England pretenders arise for thy freedom / Alas but false prophets the best of em be'. …

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